Why Afghanistan’s exiled all-female Zohra Orchestra are determined to keep playing

Sophie Wessex delivers speech at UN on women in Afghanistan

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Under the Islamic fundamentalists’ earlier regime, all music had been banned as “sinful” with draconian penalties for those caught breaking the rules. But Sevinch*, the 18-year-old concert master and a conductor of the war-torn country’s famous all-female Zohra Orchestra was made of sterner stuff. On August 15, she had been recording a waltz when a security man thumped on the rehearsal room door. “He said we should leave because the Taliban is in Kabul,” recalls Sevinch, also a talented violinist, today. The young women knew their lives were in immediate danger. Still, they held their instruments defiantly aloft.

“No,” they said. “We told him we should record that piece as it may be the last chance for us to play music again,” Sevinch explains.

Only when the last bar had been played did they pack up the instruments and rush home.

Today Sevinch is safe but exiled in Lisbon, Portugal, where all 272 members of the Afghanistan National Institute of Music (ANIM) – which includes the 30-strong Zohra Orchestra – have been granted asylum.

She takes strength in her violin. “When I play in the orchestra I am a girl who has her rights,” she says. “I feel powerful.”

It is this extraordinary bravery the makers of a new documentary hope to show the world as they follow the Zohra Orchestra preparing for their first performance together since fleeing Afghanistan.

“We were asked to make this film about a group of girls who ran for their lives because they love music,” says Lawrence Elman, CEO of Docsville Studios, which is making and producing the film.

“It was strange to us to try to understand what it means to not be allowed to listen to music, to sing music, to play music.

In simple terms, it will help viewers understand a little more what it means to be a refugee through the eyes of children steeped in optimism.”

The young musicians, aged from 14 to 20, live in temporary accommodation under the care of the Portuguese Red Cross.

Those who weren’t able to take their treasured instruments with them now play on donated ones.

Meanwhile back home, the Taliban have destroyed musical instruments and turned one of the two Music Institute campuses into a military barracks.

Older girls remain banned from secondary education and any remaining musicians are now underground.

“Once again the entire nation is a silent country,” says Dr Ahmad Sarmast, ANIM’s founder and director.

“The people of Afghanistan were deprived of their musical rights in the 1990s and that is happening again today.”

He opened Afghanistan’s first and only music school in 2010 to offer disadvantaged children, often working as street sellers, the opportunity to perform Afghan and traditional classical music. One-third of its pupils were female.

“We promote gender equality and empowerment of girls through music, and foster musical diversity in Afghanistan,” Dr Sarmast says.

Zohra Orchestra, named after the Persian goddess of music, was founded in 2015 and is made up largely of orphans or children from poor families.

It has become symbolic of the freedoms enjoyed by Afghan women in recent years.

Members have played at many prestigious concert venues and events, including the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in 2017.

Percussionist Wajiha, 18, who lived in an orphanage for several years, is one of them.

“It’s an achievement to be a part of any orchestra but Zohra is special and unique because it’s an all-female orchestra and has held that importance since its inception,” she says through an interpreter.

A pianist who “fell in love” with percussion, she is happy to be back in rehearsals. But her mother and seven siblings remain in Afghanistan.

“I’m really worried about them,” she says. “I see potential threats to their lives and I am worried about their well-being as they don’t have anything to eat. They don’t have any income. I’m not able to help them.”

Her home was in one of Kabul’s mountainside suburbs. She was on her way to rehearsals last August when her neighbour abruptly stopped her with a warning.

“He said, ‘Where are you going? The Taliban are all over Kabul’,” Wajiha remembers today.

She returned home where she had a bird’s-eye view of the invasion and saw armed insurgents roaming around the streets in open-top police vehicles.

“I didn’t believe I could be evacuated in such a chaotic situation,” she says. “It was really scary.”

Dr Sarmast was on holiday in Australia when Kabul fell. He recalls: “From the first moment the Taliban returned to power it was obvious that the music school was one of their targets and they had a clear instruction to take it over.”

He appealed to his contacts for help, including the famed US cellist Yo-Yo Ma who helped negotiate with the Qatari government.

That led to the evacuation of 272 people, including 150 students, who travelled to Doha in groups last October and November.

Wajiha hid with a member of staff until the first evacuation flight could be organised and moved door-to-door at night.

“Every day the Taliban imposed more rules and got more power,” she says. “They built more checkpoints.”

She was on her way to the airport on August 26 when a suicide bomber blew himself up, killing 183 people. “It destroyed all my hope,” she said. She eventually left Afghanistan on October 3.

Sevinch stayed with staff until leaving on November 13. “I didn’t go outside for one month in case our neighbours saw there were girls inside,” she recalls. “I was scared.”

Of her flight, she says: “I was happy because by leaving Afghanistan I could continue my music, but I was sad because I left my family and friends.”

One of Dr Sarmast’s contacts, on the aircraft, filmed the wheels of ANIM’s final flight leaving Kabul’s runway.

“He wrote, ‘Dr Sarmast, you can feel relieved. The plane has taken off’,” recalls the musician today.

“At that moment I burst into tears. I cried for 15 minutes and my wife and daughter were crying with me. They saw what I went through, all the hard work, and the nightmares I had.”

The final students arrived in Lisbon on December 13. Only now can Dr Sarmast process what has happened to his school.

The Taliban destroyed two pianos, a xylophone, sitar, guitar, cello and flute on the first day and a prized guitar gifted to the school by a famous Afghan musician.

Up to 100 Taliban fighters sleep in the campus where children once performed. Hundreds of instruments lie neglected in ANIM’s music libraries.

“They say they are safeguarding our property, but in reality we can count those instruments as destroyed,” Dr Sarmast says.

It’s heartbreaking for someone who gave everything mentally, emotionally and physically to the cause of music. “To establish the school itself wasn’t an easy task,” he says. “I risked my life. I was once a target of the Taliban.”

Dr Sarmast was nearly killed in a suicide bombing at Kabul’s French cultural centre in 2014 as ANIM performed in a musical drama – ironically enough about a suicide attack.

He sat in the second to last row in front of the bomber. Midway through the show, he dropped his phone. As he bent to retrieve it, the bomb went off.

“I was thrown several metres from my chair and felt a sharpness in my head,” he recalls. “I felt like someone had hit my head with a cricket bat.”

He lost consciousness and awoke with no hearing. “When I opened my eyes and saw my hands, they were full of blood,” he says.

He staggered outside and found the centre’s director and asked what had happened.

“I could see her lips moving but I couldn’t hear anything,” he says. She had to type the words on her phone so he could understand.

He ran back inside where he saw abandoned musical instruments strewn across the stage. To his relief, the musicians were safe. But a German national was killed and Dr Sarmast lost his hearing for 48 hours.

He flew to Australia after three weeks for surgery to remove 11 pieces of shrapnel from his head.

Having suspended lessons to “let the students breathe and to get away from the trauma”, he didn’t anticipate their return, especially as the Taliban vowed more attacks.

“I was sweetly surprised that every single student came back to their classes,” he beams. Why does he think that happened?

“The students loved studying music but it was not the most important element of their return,” he stresses.

“It was a protest against the policies of the Taliban, and resistance to them – you cannot scare us. You can kill us, you can destroy us, but we will continue our education and keep the music of Afghanistan alive.”

Sevinch hopes the orchestra’s continuing existence, albeit in exile, will inspire Afghan girls back home. “We can give them hope,” she says.

“They can say to their fathers, ‘Look these girls can go to a concert. Why can’t we go to school?’”

She plans to play professionally and pursue a scholarship in London. Her dream is to perform for the US conductor and violinist Marin Alsop.

Yo-Yo Ma recently performed with the girls in Lisbon, which will be shown in the documentary. What did he tell Sevinch?

“Before you start conducting a piece, try to feel it in your heart, try to rehearse it mentally, feel the joy in you and with that joy step up and conduct it,” she says.

Now she wants us to play our part too. “Please listen to the sound of Afghanistan,” she says.

*The Daily Express is using only first names to protect relatives in Afghanistan. The Docsville Studios documentary about Zohra Orchestra is due to be broadcast on Paramount+/MTV later this year. To support the orchestra, visit Anim-music.org

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